Originally Posted: June 5, 2021
Receiving a prestigious Truman Scholarship will help SMU student body president fuel the journey
Austin Hickle had something of an epiphany last summer: If college campuses like SMU were going to successfully return to on-campus learning in fall 2020, student engagement would be key to compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols. Within three months, he organized the College Health Alliance of Texas, which conducted student opinion research and became a conduit to Congress for student pandemic concerns.
Now, Austin’s leadership skills and proven ability to create change has earned the senior economics and public policy major a Truman Scholarship, the premier graduate fellowship for future public servants.
“For many people, the pandemic encouraged an important and renewed focus on self-care and mental health,” says Paige Ware, SMU associate provost for faculty success and one of Austin’s mentors. “Austin channeled his energy to action.”
In April of 2020, soon after SMU and other universities converted to virtual classes because of the pandemic, Austin was asked to serve as student representative to a team of 25 SMU administrators and faculty members charged with advising the University through the pandemic.
“The crowning moment in this period of time was Austin’s insertion of a key solution to a problem that had the larger group twisted in knots,” Ware said. “He offered a rotation schedule that helped facilitate in-person instruction, which became a critical component of our back-to-school plan.”
Austin’s work on the committee inspired him to create the College Health Alliance of Texas and recruit 54 student leaders from 27 Texas universities to represent the student voice in fighting the pandemic.
Austin worked with these student leaders to design, administer and interpret a student opinion survey. Anxiety, isolation and decreased availability of mental health resources emerged as key student issues during the pandemic. In response, the alliance partnered with the Meadows Public Policy Institute’s Okay to Say and the Grant Halliburton Foundation to create a mental health hotline for college students. Austin led briefings with elected officials in the U.S. Congress after organizing two roundtable discussions with nine members of the Texas delegation. Austin received a Congressional Tribute from the U.S. House of Representatives for his work on COVID-19 safety.
This systematic approach to a problem is typical for Austin, said Stephanie Amsel, Austin’s first-year writing professor and mentor.
“He does the groundwork, sets realistic goals and methodically gets to work,” she says. “It is wonderful to watch him in action, and to see how he is thinking as we talk through a problem.”
Austin’s COVID-19 work on behalf of fellow college students fits into his most ambitious goal –to become a policy leader focused on improving education in Texas and in the U.S. With the help of the $30,000 annual Truman Scholarship for graduate studies (awarded to only 62 students this year), he plans to earn both a law degree and a Master’s degree in education after completing his undergraduate studies in May 2022.
At SMU, Austin is a Hunt Leadership Scholar, a member of the University Honors Program and one of eight students in his class selected for membership in the Tower Center Scholars Program, a selective minor in public policy and international affairs.
HIS PASSION FOR EDUCATION POLICY IS PERSONAL
Austin benefited from a wide range of educational resources when he was a first-grader in Lubbock, Texas. He was held back because he couldn’t read but, thanks to a “full-on effort” from his parents, teachers and specialists, the SMU honor student caught up.
However, his sister, Emma – adopted from a China orphanage when she was eight – has had a greater struggle, Austin says.
“She had never been to school when she joined our family,” he says. “Seeing what she has gone through opened my eyes to the importance of education.”
Emma’s struggles also opened Austin’s eyes to education needs in undeveloped countries. The summer after his sophomore year at SMU, he taught math and reading to gifted high school students in Kenya through the KenSAP program. All 25 of his students are now attending college in the United States.
Austin next turned his attention to war-torn Cameroon, inspired by A Father’s Gift, a book written by Cameroon native and fellow Lubbock resident, Sixtus Atabong. He used a Richter Independent Research Fellowship and an SMU Engaged Learning Fellowship to conduct a needs assessment of Cameroon education with two Cameroonian doctoral candidates after learning through Atabong’s book of the 695,000 students unable to attend school due to the country’s 10-year civil war. In response, he created a foundation, the Global Education Mission, to develop a plan with Cameroon teachers to provide equitable education to children in Cameroon.
Their first step was to implement a pilot teaching project to present in Cameroon the summer of 2020. Despite COVID-19 grounding Austin’s travel plans, foundation workers found classroom space in Cameroon and hired two teachers. Austin joined them to teach five students virtually from his home in Lubbock.
Next, Austin co-authored with Norah Asung and Ngo Angeline a policy proposal, “Cameroon Education: Conflict Recovery Plan,” to present to Cameroon officials. Previous internships with the U.S. Department of Energy and with U.S. Congress representatives Jodey Arrington (R-TX) and Jenniffer González Colón (R-Puerto Rico) supported his ability to draft the proposal.
“Effective policy carves a more surefooted path to systematic change than any single nonprofit can offer,” Austin says. “In the long term, I’d like to serve as an elected leader with the influence to shape evidence-based policy that provides equitable education for all.”
In the meantime, Austin is leading SMU students as their elected leader, 2021-2022 student body president. He is interested in increasing need-based aid for students to create a more diverse student body and advocating for more student mental health resources.
“Austin is a force we want to join,” Ware says. “If an early sign of leadership ability presents itself in this way – as a wellspring of energy and hope – then Austin will continue to inspire others to engage with change.”